iHub By Jessica Colaco / April 30, 2011
Research Writing Workshop with Anna Clark
Anna Clark is a writer from Detroit who is on a Fulbright fellowship in Kenya in 2011. Her writing has appeared in The American Prospect, Salon, The Nation, The Daily Beast and The Detroit Free Press, among other publications. Anna edits the literary website, Isak (www.isak.typepad.com), and contributes video book reviews to The Collagist. She has been a fellow with the Peter Jennings Center for Journalists and the Constitution. Anna graduated from the University of Michigan’s Residential College with highest honors, and from Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers.
If all you have is your written words to stand for you, what story are you telling? You are creative, brilliant, brimming with ideas: do your words reveal this, or disguise this? How do you make your words say more than they simply say? These are the questions we started out with at the interactive writing workshop I had the pleasure of teaching yesterday with the bright entrepreneurs of iHub, a tech innovation incubator in Nairobi. What was interesting about this particular workshop is that we engaged with writing of wildly different types: emails, proposals, reports, project narratives, websites, social networking, resumes, text messages. Each person at the table has a story to tell, and while in ordinary writing workshops we might work together to make that story into one coherent song that appears in one particular place — its beginning and ending appear in the same space — here we were composing a coherent song across mediums, across time, and across networks.
Because this is a group of entrepreneurs, we talked about all the baggage and myth that comes along with a moniker like “professional writing.” That professional writing is, for example, boring to read and boring to write. That it is long. That it is formal. That is has a lot of serious and multi-syllabic words. That great writing is merely a flourish, a decoration, upon the real work. That writing that appears on, say, Facebook, doesn’t count as professional writing. I’ve seen this in every sector I’ve encountered: people who want themselves and their ideas taken seriously feel like their writing needs to be dour, chronological, and dull.
Which is a damn shame. A lot of brilliant ideas are drained of their inspiration and creativity when they pass through the portal of “professional writing.” It is as if people assume their writing is meant to be skimmed: text in the research report or the cover letter is meant only to look official, to take up space, to simply be there, rather than to actively tell a good story. And no good purpose is served by this: people ultimately aren’t inspired by those brilliant ideas, if they even recognize an idea somewhere in the clutter of what George Orwell would call “verbal false limbs.” There are fewer connections between people (and, really, what is more important than connection between people?). Brilliance dims. Things don’t happen.
Professionals or not, we’re all people. We fall in love with a good story. And while there is quite a lot to choreograph for those in the business of making things and taking risks, as these iHub entrepreneurs are, our stories are worth our attention: indeed, our stories are told whether or not we’re paying attention to them. I’m talking both about the nuts-and-bolts of writing — the tools that lie in grammar, punctuation, medium, formatting, design, and style — and of building potent narratives that cohere across platforms and that carry forward into time.
In a way, entrepreneurs are the perfect narrators: they have a vision of something that doesn’t yet exist, they have their audience in mind, and they are working in real time. Navigating this can be playful, like a game, rather than merely a “to do” on the build-a-business list. Let’s find the joy here! I want to see spark in the “professional writing” of these entrepreneurs. I want a good story. I’m listening.
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